Patthalgadi Movement: The Struggle to Protect ‘Jal-Jangal-Zameen’

The Pathalgadi movement is spreading like fire in the heartland of India – the abode of the adivasis and moolvasis. The origin is the Khunti district in the state of Jharkhand. However, Pathalgadi with messages engraved on them including warnings for outsiders, mainly the government officials, prohibiting them from entering the village without approval of the Gram Sabha, have come up over the past years at the entry points of tribal hamlets in a number of villages across Khunti, Gumla, Simdega and West Singhbhum districts.

Pathalgadi, meaning erecting a stone, has been a tradition with the Mundas of Jharkhand for hundreds of years. Traditionally, pathar or stones are erected to notify, mark or demarcate important spots such as boundaries, homes, land, forests and graveyards. After the provisions of the Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Area) Act (PESA Act) came into existence in the year 1996, two former bureaucrats, IAS officer B.D. Sharma and IPS officer Bandi Oraon, initiated the practice of placing stone slabs inscribed with rules and provisions of the PESA Act to raise awareness among the tribals and strengthen democracy at the grass-root level.

The PESA act says: “…every village shall have a Gram Sabha consisting of persons whose names are included in the electoral rolls for the Panchayat at the village level; (d) every Gram Sabha shall be competent to safeguard and preserve the traditions and customs of the people, their cultural identity, community resources and the customary mode of dispute resolution; (e) every Gram Sabha shall – i. approve of the plans, programmes and projects for social and economic development before such plans, programmes and projects are taken up for implementation by the Panchayat at the village level; ii. be responsible for the identification or selection of persons as beneficiaries under the poverty alleviation and other programmes.” However, successive State Governments have not been following the special provisions created for the tribals by means of Fifth Schedule of the Indian Constitution. Many corporate projects have been sanctioned in those areas without consulting the Gram Sabhas. Discontent slowly built up and eventually it has taken the shape of mass tribal agitation. The battle is aimed to reclaim their rights over “jal, jangal and zameen” (water, forest and land) of the region, which has been empowered by the constitution. However, the government is trying to suppress and malign the movement by branding it as a protective cover manufactured by the Maoists and criminals involved in opium cultivation, and the Jharkhand Police filed sedition cases against 20 people, including Jesuit priest Stan Swami and former Congress MLA Theodore Kiro. The gang rape of five NGO workers in June was sought to be pinned on the Pathagadi movement by the state police, but the activists are now concluding that the link was created in order to harass the leaders of the movement.

The movement came to prominence after the BJP government tried to amend, in November 2016, the two Acts, namely, Chotanagpur Tenancy Act (CNT) and Santhal Parganas Tenancy Act (SPT) which prohibit the transfer of tribal land to non-tribals and protects community ownership. Through the amendments, the government tried to enable the acquisition of tribal land for the so called ‘development’. After several protests, the bills were withdrawn, but, the government came up with the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act 2013 (Jharkhand Amendment) Bill which is likely to have more adverse consequences than the previous ones. The Raghubar Das government’s bid to amend these laws is directed at creation of a land bank for its ambitious Momentum Jharkhand project to facilitate the transfer of tribal land to the corporate and industrialists.

Millions of tribals are being evicted from their villages and their rights over their forests are being taken away. The central and state governments have signed multiple Memorandum of Understandings (MoUs) with big mining and industrial corporations, mostly owned by big foreign monopoly and finance corporations and their Indian comprador lackeys, which will allow these corporations to plunder the mineral resources and grab the land of the tribals. Whenever the tribals protested against the forceful eviction from their land and forests, the government branded them as Maoists and unleashed state terror on them. Hundreds of tribal youths are being killed in staged encounters by the police and the central paramilitary forces who are engaged in Indian Government’s largest war on civilians – the Operation Green Hunt or its newer versions. It is not hard for the tribals to comprehend the real intention of the government which is planning to evict and massacre the tribals en masse from their land and forests for the sake of the mining corporations.

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